Family Tradition

Irvine resident Steven Harvey Hirsch is an attorney, father of two grown sons, and husband/caregiver-spouse of his wife of 26 years, Jacqui.  But his personal passion is acting in musical theater.  From July 12 to 28, he will portray Lazar Wolf, the butcher, in Saddleback Civic Light Opera’s production of Fiddler on the Roof at the McKinney Theater stage in Mission Viejo.  You may ask, how does he come by that role?  That, Hirsch can tell you in a word: tradition!  Family tradition.

From before the time he was born until his early high school years, Hirsch’s father, Milt, was a butcher and neighborhood grocer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He’d served as a radio operator on a B-24 Liberator crew making bombing runs over Germany in the final years of World War II.  After returning home and marrying Steven’s mother, Ruthe, in 1947, Milt began learning the meat business from his father-in-law, David Rabinowitz, who owned a corner market at Penn Avenue and 25th Street in the city’s Strip District.  There they served a neighborhood clientele of steelworkers, coal miners and other blue collar wage earners.

Rabinowitz had grown up in the real-life world of Fiddler on the Roof – the youngest son of Shmuel Rabinowitz and his wife from the Jewish shtetl of Skvira, some forty miles southwest of Kiev.  David had joined his father in the family business – driving their horse and buggy from the shtetl to Odessa on the Black Sea.  There, they purchased the catch of fishermen from neighboring countries and transported it back home, where it was salted, dried and sold among the families in their village.

Shmuel’s house had a root cellar underneath it, and one level below that, a sub-basement where they stored dried fish.  That underground space served another, more important purpose, as well – it provided a place for the family and a few lucky neighbors to hide during the pogroms that began taking place in the early years of the 20th century.

David married a local beauty whose family was too poor to offer a dowry, and the young couple lived in Shmuel’s home with their two young sons.  When the Czar’s army sought David as a conscript, he made plans to get himself and his young family out of the country.

After making his way to Romania, David sent for his wife and two sons, and they were smuggled out of the country, crossing the frozen Dniester River on foot throughout a very cold night.  Three months later they made it to Le Havre, France, and after crossing the Atlantic in steerage of a converted freighter, they arrived in Canada.  A third son was born in Toronto, and after two years there, they became eligible to apply for admission to the US.  David’s older brother, Sholom, was in the meat business in Pittsburgh and encouraged David to come join him and learn the business.  In 1926 the family relocated there, and a year later, their youngest child and only daughter, Ruthe, Steven’s mother, was born.

By the time of the Great Depression, David was a skilled butcher.  By 1940, he had a store of his own, and he earned a comfortable living during the war years when food rationing was in effect, but he and his wife worried for the welfare of two of their sons: Irv served in the navy in the South Pacific and Lou, in the army, where he served in the Battle of the Bulge.  Mac, the eldest son, was ten when the family left Russia.  He was thirteen years older than Ruthe, married with two sons, and had been set up in the meat business by his father.  At his age, he was too old to be drafted.  Ruthe helped her father out in his store after high school classes during the week and she worked all day on Saturdays, when her father, who remained an observant Jew his whole life, went to shul on Shabbos.

By 1946, all three of David Rabinowitz’s sons operated markets of their own, each in a different Pittsburgh neighborhood.  When Milt, after first trying his hand in his own father’s heating business, left it to begin working in his father-in-law’s store to learn the meat and retail grocery business, he became the fifth man in the family to join that trade.

After David was stricken with cancer, Milt carried on in the store.  As years went by, the residential character of the neighborhood declined as the housing stock became more and more dilapidated.  Block after block was torn down, resulting in fewer customers and more vacant lots.

David Rabinowitz died in 1961.  Milt eventually sold the building and the lot and three years later, opened another market near the trolley tracks in Castle Shannon.  Had it not been for the growth of supermarket chains, Milt might have remained in the business, but economic pressures precipitated a mid-life career change within a decade.

The first seven years of Steven’s life were spent in the vortex of a loving, extended family.  He and his parents, and later two younger sisters, lived on Nicholson Street, upstairs from Grandma and Papa Hirsch, whose Squirrel Hill duplex was just across the street and one house down the block from that of his Bubbe and Zayde, the Rabinowitz couple.  Steven’s life was nothing if not filled with the love and attention of grandparents, and, of course, lots of good, home-cooked food!

Zayde, David Rabinowitz, observed the commandment to keep the Sabbath — Shabbos – as a day of rest from work. Instead, he went to shul, where he served as ba’al tefillah – a lay leader of prayer.  He had a beautiful voice, and he would daven the preliminary benedictions from the bimah from the early morning until the cantor arrived to take over at the beginning of shakhris, the formal morning service.

Steven, or Stevelie, as his family called him, inherited some of his Zayde’s musical gift.  On Saturday mornings, when his mother and father would go work together in the store while Zayde was in shul, Stevelie was left in the care of Bubbe, whose house was full of the aroma of food being kept warm on the stove from the day before.  When Zayde would arrive home, Bubbe would serve him his mid-day meal, and afterward, he would bounce Stevelie on his knee, sung niggunim (wordless melodies) and congregational music from the Shabbos liturgy, and eventually grow tired and retire to take a nap and later read the Forward.

Sometime after the age of two, Stevelie began to demonstrate the ability to harmonize along with his Zayde, a source of great delight to the older man.  David had come a long way from the shtetl, but the sound of the traditional melodies took him right back to his own youth.  The fact that his grandson could sing the old melodies along with him bridged a gap – across both miles and years — from the old world.

The connections between his own family’s story and that of Tevye and his daughters in Anatevka create a deep bond for Hirsch.  The real-life story of Shmuel Rabinowitz and his children in Skvira, the music of the Rabinowitz family and that of FIDDLER, the connection of the family meat business and Hirsch’s portrayal of the butcher, Lazar Wolf, on the McKinney Theater stage, create the aromatic atmosphere just like the one in his Bubbe’s house in Pittsburgh some sixty years ago.  From Skvira and Anatevka in the early years of the twentieth century to Orange County in 2013, the tradition goes on.

For more than twenty years, Steven and his wife, Jacqui, have been members of Irvine’s University Synagogue, shortly after Steven accepted a position with a former employer in 1988.  They moved to OC from New York’s Greenwich Village in 1988, when their eldest son, Rudy, was only three months old.  It was a return to the OC for Steven, who had passed the California Bar Exam in 1981 and worked here from until 1984, but it was culture shock for Jacqui, a New Yorker through and through.  Even though co-op apartment in NYC had less than three hundred square feet co-op apartment, Jacqui loved it there, with its tenth-floor views of the penthouse apartment across the street that was rumored to belong to Richard Gere to the view of the twin towers in the southern sky.  Jacqui, while blind in one eye since birth, was a painter, with a day job as an administrator at Cornell – New York Hospital.  She had graduated from the School of Fine Arts at Boston University and had had some of her work exhibited in shows on the East Coast.

The Irvine community and the synagogue fellowship were warm and welcoming, and Jacqui even found some other New York expats there.  Steven found his way into the synagogue music, and very early on, he became one of the two original members of its choir – the music havurah – an activity and group that he treasures and continues in to this day.  He even walked in the footsteps of his Zayde – taking on an unofficial ba’al tefillah role by filling in for the rabbi and cantor during absences for travel or periods of illness.  Some in the community might be surprised to learn that Steven has battled internal demons and insecurities about performing in public, but a connection with memories of his Zayde, and the maturity that comes with age, have provided a transcendent path through the relics of that struggle.

Jacqui, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a year before she and Steven met, was only mildly affected by the disease at first, with the episodic flare-ups characteristic of the relapsing-remitting phase of the disease.  She gave birth to Jonah, her blond haired, blue-eyed California boy in 1990.  He was one of the first twenty-five babies born at the then brand new Irvine Medical Center (now Hoag Hospital Irvine), receiving a US Savings Bond in commemoration of the event.  Jacqui’s MS symptoms were in remission while she was pregnant and nursing, which led her to joke to her neurologist that perhaps she should consider a career as a wet nurse.  Now, more than twenty years later, she is significantly disabled, and spends her days at home, mostly interacting with others via the Internet or through MS support group meetings.

Steven does lot to help take care of Jacqui, and they have occasionally had in-home help.  Steven took on that role during a period of unemployment, having been part of large layoff at Hoag Hospital at the end of 2011, where as an in-house counsel he had supported Hoag’s IT projects and programs.  He’s recently joined the legal department of a technology retailer in Los Angeles County, so the couple has begun looking for a new daytime caregiver for Jacqui.

Although Jacqui loves seeing Steven perform, she doesn’t relish her role as theater widow during the rehearsal process.  Thankfully, the rehearsal period for this production of FIDDLER only lasts a month.  The two of them consider much of their life together to be a real life sit-com, and as most coupled folks can testify, a strong sense of humor is a valuable asset in just about any long-term relationship.  She’s watched Steven participate in two CHOC Follies productions and play Herr Schultz in Irvine Valley College’s production of Cabaret, all in the past three years.

Once the final curtain comes down on this production of FIDDLER, Steven will take time away from his theatrical activities as he’s a candidate for hip replacement.  He quips that although Lazar and Tevye have had their differences, it really is time to let bygones be bygones: perhaps Steven’s Lazar will ask his orthopedic surgeon if he’d be willing to take a look at that troublesome leg on Tevye’s horse.

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1 COMMENT

  1. My family thoroughly enjoyed your performance as Lazer Wolf…..U were a laser during the performance (Just could not resist that)…..I have seen you at University Synagogue as a leader of the services…..The show was wonderful and John Huntington was super as Tevye.

    We wish you well.

    Norm

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